Sometimes one thing leads to another. Isabella Tree’s Wilding book piqued my interest to attend the Somerset Wildlife Trust’s talk on rewilding in Castle Cary on Tuesday. Stephen Parker of Natural England and South Somerset botanical recorder spoke about rewilding the landscape to reduce the impact of intensive farming and promote nature conservation. I had attended his outdoor water plants workshop for the Somerset Rare Plants Group the previous weekend at Avalon Marshes. Putting two and two together, I headed to the Steart Marshes and Stockland Marshes to practise my newly-developed water plant skills.
A New Wildlife Habitat
Steart Marshes is a relatively new Wetland Wildlife Trust (WWT) site. Major engineering works in 2014 created a breach in the flood embankment and returned reclaimed land to flooding by sea’s high tides. The aim is to protect local communities from flooding due to climate change, restore wildlife habitats and graze livestock.
A Chance, Rare Encounter
On discovering a rare botanist on his patch, the ranger kindly let me into a closed area of the reserve to take a close look at Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium. There are many members of the Mint or Lamiaceae family to be found locally and even on the reserve, but this plant was new to me. It does not always appear in botanical guides. Streeter’s Collins Wild Flower Guide (2016) notes that members of the Mint family are not always easy to identify as they are very variable, hybridise freely, are often cultivated and frequently escape.
Past Medicinal Use
The ranger explained that it had been used in the past as an abortive drug. Pennyroyal arrived with the Romans, but is now largely forgotten. Its medicinal properties and dosage have proved far too unpredictable for the rigours of modern-day medicine.
On closer inspection and a sniff, I discovered that Pennyroyal is not a pleasant-smelling member of Mint family. Stace describes a ‘pungent scent’. It stinks. The multi-tiered lilac spike of its inflorescence is a beauty at close quarters.
The leaves are much smaller than those of Corn Mint, Mentha arvenis. The lilac of the inflorescence dominates over the green of the leaves. Different sources describe Pennyroyal as either prostrate, erect, or both. My examples seem to be hedging their bets, at a diagonal slant to the ground.
Consulting Somerset Flora
On returning home, I consulted my Somerset Flora. The Green brothers’ Atlas Flora of Somerset (1997) is informative about locations, but unfortunately it does not contain any corroborative pictures. They describe Mentha pulegium as a very rare introduction, a weed of cultivation and reseeded grassland. This tallies with the observation in Stace 3 that it is increasing as a grass-seed contaminant.
The Green brothers note that it appeared in a newly-made garden in Porlock in 1982, before adding that it is plentiful on the landward side of the sea bank along the River Parrett, near Pawlett. They describe it as extinct as a native plant. It was last seen on Radlet Common, Spartan in 1826.
A Rewilding Reappearance?
It would appear that Pennyroyal has turned up again in 2017 near the River Parrett. A possible reappearance due rewilding and grazing cattle churning up the soil?
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